At the Ten Bells
The Ten Bells – seen in the top right of this busy photograph of Commercial St in 1905 – is almost as old as Nicholas Hawksmoor’s mighty edifice of Christ Church, Spitalfields, which it sits beneath just like a parcel under a Christmas tree. Once the church was completed in 1729, funds were raised for the installation of a standard peal of eight bells, and in 1755, The Eight Bells Alehouse was recorded in Red Lion St, the thoroughfare that became Commercial St in the nineteenth century. And The Eight Bells was renamed The Ten Bells in 1788, when a new set of ten chimes was installed in the belfry at Christ Church.
In 1851, as a result of the vast expansion of trade in London, Commercial St was cut through Spitalfields to convey traffic from the docks, diverting it from passing through the City, and the former Red Lion St was widened, resulting in the demolition of The Ten Bells. At the same time, the end of Fournier St was chopped off and, in compensation for the loss of their premises, Truman, Hanbury, Buxton & Co, owners of The Ten Bells were given the freehold of number thirty-three, the last house standing at the Western extremity of the street, along with five hundred pounds to rebuild the property. The architect’s solution was to build the wrap-around facade which you see today, to cover the naked embarrassment of this fragment at the end of the terrace, enclosing a Georgian building within a Victorian frontage.
I learnt all this from John Twomey, the landlord, when he took me on a tour of the current renovations that are nearing completion after six years of planning and which will result in the reopening of the upper room with its dramatic views across to the market, down Commercial St and up to the spire of Christ Church looming overhead. The internal structure is an eccentric hybrid, in which, upon the upper floors, walls veer at unexpected angles to link the regularly spaced windows of the exterior with the jumble of interior spaces derived from the previous building.
As part of the restoration, the previous signboards have been removed to reveal those from a century ago, emblazoned with “Truman’s Beers” in gold capitals upon a deep green ground, and – by chance – when I came to meet John Twomey, my arrival coincided with the new delivery of Truman’s Beer that is now returning to the pubs of the East End. Walking in off the street, I discovered that the bar has been moved to the centre of the room which throws emphasis onto the magnificent coloured tiles that gleam in the light just as they have done for over century, connecting us to the countless thousands before us for whom this pub was a refuge from their working lives. In Spitalfields, many casual workers rented beds by the night and had no place to relax, socialise and seek solace after work except the bars - giving literal meaning to the phrase “public house.” And in the smoothed stone upon the threshold, in its beaten up floors and worn staircases, everywhere throughout this old building, the soulful presence of all our predecessors is tangible at The Ten Bells.
“Coming from multiple career backgrounds and living in multiple locations, the only place I have ever felt at home is Spitalfields, which always changes,” admitted John, who lives up above the pub in the warren of rooms with views across to the church. A fearless entrepreneur with steel blue eyes and copper hair who underplays his keen intelligence through magnanimous demonstrations of Hibernian charm and levity, John brings his own story to graft onto that of The Ten Bells. “Once upon a time,” he began, “my mother started a fencing club and at thirteen I won a major competition. I began competing all over Europe, and it gave me a life of travelling and learning languages. But since the day I bought this pub, I haven’t done a day’s training.”
“As a kid, I invented electrical testing equipment for fencing and that led me to study electrical engineering as a student. In Ireland, I won the national championship ten times, which was a record in their history, so I wasn’t particularly interested in winning it eleven times. After university, I went to the Soviet Union and learnt Russian, but because I was in Estonia, which broke away, I had to learn Estonian too. It was exciting to be in a country that was being born, I got involved in starting a bank and was able to enjoy careers in banking and fencing hand-in-hand. The Soviet Union were the World Champions at the time, so to be invited to join an Estonian team was a great honour and we won their national championship. Then in 1996, I decided to move to London and by then I could speak ten languages. So I got a job designing systems for banks that allowed me to travel to places where I could do fencing, but by now I had fallen in love with Spitalfields…”
And then John fell silent, casting his eyes around humorously, after recounting his extraordinary narrative, because since 2001, this has been his life – here at The Ten Bells – even though he could not resist restoring a five hundred year old building in Morocco to create a hotel, as a side project. I could only marvel at this catalogue of achievement and draw the irresistible conclusion that John possesses that rare combination of both flourish and acumen, essential for a successful landlord.
We were sitting in the bar, upon tiny chairs from a primary school, on a sunny morning. Most prominent on the wall was William Butler Simpson & Sons’ whimsical ceramic mural dating from the eighteen eighties, now cleaned by the same company that originally manufactured it, and we took a moment to admire it. Entitled “Spitalfields in ye olden times” and displaying a scene of aristocrats coming to buy silks from a weaver in the eighteenth century, John revealed it would shortly acquire a companion piece entitled “Spitalfields in modern times,” painted by Ian Harper.
Over the next week, all manner of wild rumours reached me concerning who was being portrayed in this new painting and in what form. Then, last night, the residents gathered in a state of high anticipation in the upper room, for a party hosted by John, where Ian Harper pulled off the dust sheet to applause and murmurs of approval from the assembled crowd. It was the beginning of a new chapter, heralding renewed life at The Ten Bells.
This section of John Horwood’s map (1794-99) shows Spitalfields before Commercial St was cut through along the line of Red Lion St. At this time, The Ten Bells occupied the un-numbered building at the corner of Red Lion St and Church St (now Fournier St). When these premises were demolished in the creation of Commercial St, the Ten Bells moved to the property numbered 33 Church St on this map and a new facade was built enclosing the earlier building, which you see today.
The Ten Bells sits beneath Christ Church, Spitalfields.
John Twomey, Olympic Fencer, Tallinn 1993.
John prepares to engage.
John Twomey, landlord of The Ten Bells.
Nineteenth century ceramic mural in the bar, “Spitalfields in ye olden time – visiting a weaver’s shop.”
Ian Harper unveiled “Spitalfields in modern times” last night at The Ten Bells. Pay a visit yourself and you will recognise several figures from the pages of Spitalfields Life.
Truman’s Beer is delivered to The Ten Bells.